In 1312, a writer by the name Daniel of Eccles felt that his English countrymen weren’t elegant and gentlemanly enough, so he did what every respectable scholar would do. He wrote a book of manners, the first English book of manners in fact, which features advice such as “Don’t mount your horse in the hall” and “Do not attack your enemy while he is squatting to defecate.” Good tips right here.

Seriously, no one likes a guy who mounts his horse in the hall. I hate it when that happens! Image from the book cover.

Civilized Man is a 3,000 line Latin verse poem believed to be the first English courtesy book (or book of manners). In future centuries courtesy books were plentiful but this one was way ahead of its time. The book represented a new awakening to etiquette and decorum in English court society, bringing the old island up to date with the rest of Europe.

If you wish to belch, remember to look up to the ceiling

Prosperity had greatly grown in that time, but culturally, England was still somewhat lagging. Many of the men who had advanced through society and had gained considerable wealth had not yet been accustomed to the traditions and common courtesy that the lords and kings embraced — this was likely why Danielis Becclesiensis (today translated as Daniel of Beccles), who was in the household of King Henry II for over 30 years, wrote the book.

He aims it particularly as men because (as it will be abundantly relevant a bit later on in the article) his opinion about women wasn’t too high. He starts Civilized Man thusly:

“To be adorned with morals and manners, if you desire, reader, to be venerated, to be noble among lords and lead a civilized life, to be a provident overseer in administering your own property, read and re-read often and keep for ever in your mind these verses which I have decided to write, clad in the lightness of common language, for boy-clerks.”

Painting by Bartholomeus van der Helst.

There are three main themes he approaches: social hierarchy, table manners, and sexual morality.

Social hierarchy was more important in those days than it is today. All men were not equal, and people had superiors and inferiors (unless you were the king and everyone bowed to you, basically). Daniel emphasizes that servants should cover their lords at all times — literally.

“If you are acting as a servant, stand by the bedside; cover your lord’s naked body.”

There’s even a special section about using the privy. Here too, there are clear indications:

“When he sits on the privy in the usual way, take in your hands hay or straw, pick up two big wads of hay in your fingers and press them well together. You should prepare to give them to your patron when he wants them. Let the wads be given to him as you stand, not bending the knee. If two together are sitting on a privy, one should not get up while the other is emptying himself.”

Self-control and table manners: “Do not hunt for fleas on your arms or bosom in front of the patron”

Rather interestingly, most of the advice he gives could easily be applied today. There are things like “Don’t talk with your mouth full”, “don’t blow your nose”, “don’t take food from your fellow’s plates”…

“Do not be a nose-blower at dinner nor a spitter; if a cough attacks you defeat the cough…If you want to belch, be mindful to look at the ceiling… Do not say ‘Drink first’ when the butler offers you drink. If he says ‘Wassail (Weisheil)’, let your response be ‘Drink hail (Drincheil)’.”

“But if by chance you have a girl as butler, you may properly say ‘Drink first to me, taking an equal share’. If a fat morsel lies in the dish in front of your companion, do not touch it with your finger, for fear that fingers will be pointed at you as a boor…When your fellow drains his cups, cease eating.”

Daniel also advises against talking with your mouth full, and most notably, against stealing. I’m quite surprised that something like this would be mentioned in a courtesy book because this is more of a crime and less of a manners thing, but I’m sure he had his reasons:

“Spoons which are used for eating do not become your property.”

Daniel is also clear about who is allowed to urinate in the hall after eating: the host alone. Everyone else should go outside. Also, if you want to defecate, don’t do it in the open — find a hidden place and try to face the wind. Farting indoors was generally frowned upon, as was overeating, playing with your food, and using your fingers to clean bowls.

Also, no matter how much you hate someone, don’t charge them while they’re defecating. Let them do their thing and attack them afterward.

But when it comes to women… this is where Daniel really goes crazy. For the easily offended, read at your own risk.

“If there is something you do not want people to know, do not tell it to your wife”

An ensemble of actors playing the part of the town’s gossip women, at Santa Maria da Feira’s medieval fair. Image credits: Miguel Pires da Rosa

Following a belief that has its roots in Antiquity, Daniel believes women to be frail and overcome by sexual desires. In his own words, ‘when tempted by sweet words, even a chaste, good, dutiful, devout and kindly woman will resist scarcely anyone’. He says that women are always ready to fornicate — “with a cook or a half-wit, a peasant or a ploughman, or a chaplain… what she longs for is a thick, leaping, robust piece of equipment, long, smooth and stiff“.

That’s not a particularly nice thing to say, even for the 13th century. But it’s not just that paragraph that’s sure to raise some brows. Daniel has some weird advice for men as well:

“Whatever your wife does, do not damage your marriage. [..] if you are a cuckold, do not whisper a word about it… when you are a cuckold, learn to look up at the ceiling.”

Daniel wasn’t too fond of children either:

“They cover their clothes with ashes, they make them dirty, they dribble on them; they wipe their noses flowing with filth on their sleeves.”

So yeah, those were some really weird time it seems. But the climax of it all, and some genuinely good advice, is when it comes to the wife of a lord. What should you do if such a lady courts you? Obviously, you don’t want to attract the wrath of said lord, but you also don’t want to hurt her feelings. So what do you do? Feign an illness.

“Consult me, my son; what I counsel is planted in your heart; between two evils, choose the lesser evil; your safer plan is to feign illness, nerve-racking diseases, to go away sensibly and prudently.”

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